Monday, February 13, 2012

Strand Bookstore, Literary Landmark No. 8

January 17, 2012

The Strand in Greenwich Village is a twofer: both a literary landmark and an epic bookstore, and “epic” is an understatement.

I didn’t want to love the Strand, which is why I didn’t immediately rush to it when people (everybody) suggested it. “Have you been to The Strand yet? You have to go!”  I avoided it with the same guilty pride we use when we don’t want to admit that we actually enjoyed a common blockbuster film that “the masses” prize – you know, a James Cameron or Michael Bay flick. Or, for a better example, even though going to the top of the Empire State Building is cliché, no one can deny that it’s a phenomenal vantage point that acquaints you with New York and preserves some of the movie magic that we associate with the city.  So although The Strand is undoubtedly local and couldn’t be anywhere but New York, the last remaining used bookseller on the once-abundant Book Row, I nearly considered it too well-known and almost too “touristy” for my search.

Well, that was just stupid.

When I arrived at The Strand (very conveniently located close to the subway and all its connections at Union Square, thus easily accessible…), I probably didn’t enter the store for a good twenty minutes.  The temperature was in the 20s and I was wearing a skirt and thin tights, so my legs felt every whip of that wind.  But how could they (I) pay any attention when there were carts and carts of used books for sale outside?  Even before customers enter the store, they have entered a browsing paradise.

“Browsing Paradise”- [brouz-ing par-uh-dahys] – noun.  Origin: 2012 AD, United States
  1. Of or depicting the heavenly realms of bibliophilia.
  2. A place of extreme beauty, delight, or happiness wrought by the presence of rare books and titles, gorgeous spines and covers, and the tangible accessibility to so many pages of wonder.
  3. The occasion upon which bookstore patrons may happen upon random finds near one another.  Multiple genres cohabitate on carts and in bins: Look at those editions of Thoreau and Michael J. Fox next to each other on the $2 cart; this must be a browser’s paradise.
  4. The slightly overwhelming circumstances in which one is confronted with 18 miles of books and, after spending an hour simply walking some of the aisles, realizes that one has not even made a dent in all of the possibilities.  Thus, one resolves to return.

"Hi, I'm a 19th century edition, just hanging out on the $2 cart."

Look what I found!  Yes,ladies and gents, my name is on the shelves at the Strand, compliments of UT creative writing.
Founded in 1927, the Strand features plenty of new but also used books.  Seriously, it makes McKay in Knoxville look like a joke. If I were so bold as to make an analogy…

McKay : Strand :: a child’s fingerpainting on the fridge : the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Literally, books are shoved into every nook and cranny of its four floors, and it has astounding sections of not only standards like literature, history, and philosophy but fashion, art, and photography.  It boasts (on plenty of attractive merchandise – and totes!) that it has 18 miles of books, and I believe it.  Apparently, Steven Spielberg ordered a 30,000 title library from the Strand; it probably didn’t make much of a dent.

It has so many of the ideal bookstore features that meet my criteria: charming and intriguing displays (even a featured author gets to curate his/her own display table to fill with their goodies of choice), good discounts, a great selection in clearly marked sections, used books, community involvement and events, and a unique character.  The displays are often humorous, and despite the sheer size of its shelves and inventory, it avoids feeling like a warehouse or too commercial.

New books that look old so you can build that impressive library display.

Way to keep up with the times.

Interesting neighbors.

My next journal?
 The Strand is incomparable.  Literally. I don’t think that I can compare it to my other finds because it’s created its own breed of bookstore; the smaller stores I’ve found can’t offer the same discounts or displays because they have neither the size nor the consumer base…nor the budget,  I’m sure. At Strand,  the sheer size and prospect of finding hidden treasures makes it impossible not to browse (I don’t think I’ll ever be able to enter without purchasing something), but it’s also impossible to browse because you quickly get overwhelmed by the sheer size and prospect of leafing through so many volumes.  Sensory overload and overstimulation makes visiting Strand a guaranteed time commitment. 

Unlike some of my other local bookstore finds, the atmosphere is alive with energy, which is both a blessing and curse.  A famous writer or celebrity could brush your shoulder or stand directly across from you at the display table, but you wouldn’t notice because you are so inundated with the books in front of you and the activity of staff and customers around you.  To accommodate so many volumes, the aisles are narrow, and it’s not difficult to get trapped while someone pulls a book off the shelf – but not one on the top; those are some tall and nearly inaccessible stacks in such a hubbub.  Strand is by no means so heavily trafficked that you can’t enjoy looking at some titles and leafing through a few, but it certainly lacks the leisurely coziness of other stores. 

A Conversation between Two Bookstores:
Small, cozy, independent store: “Hey man, we have some good reads.  Roger suggests this theological treatise, and Beth suggests this book on vegetarianism.  But, you know, read a few pages, see if you like it.  That cracked leather chair is pretty comfy.  Take your time, whatevs.  I’m just going to play you some Duke Ellington while you check it out, maybe switch to some indie band that nobody’s heard of yet.  Cool.”
The Strand:  “We have books.  We have totes.  We have gifts. We have rare books, collectible books, artsy books, picture books, word books.  Books, BOOKS, BOOKS!
(So many books, so little time for that panic attack you’re about to have….)

Of course I will return, and of course I will end up buying more books that I don’t need, but I will also find more small stores that I can “own.”  The Strand may be “a great bookstore to visit” and “a favorite store of mine,” but it lacks the intimacy that may compel someone to gush, “it’s my favorite place.” It’s a New York City favorite, not a neighborhood favorite.

1 comment:

  1. From Laura to McKay: I still love you even though your once faithful friend Leah has moved on to bigger and better bookstores. :)

    Enjoyed reading about the find!